Mighty Blog

Meet Doug, first patient at Children’s Minnesota to undergo pioneering heart surgery in 1985

The saying “in the right place at the right time” aptly applies to Doug Smieja.

Doug was born in 1985 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a complex and rare birth defect that affects normal blood flow through the heart. HLHS was a fatal condition for nearly all newborns when pediatric cardiologist Dr. Amarjit Singh began his practice at Children’s Heart Clinic in 1975. But only a couple years before Doug’s birth there was new hope for babies like Doug. Dr. Singh and his colleague, pediatric cardiac surgeon Dr. Hovald Helseth, were following the progress of Dr. William Norwood, a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon in Philadelphia. Dr. Norwood developed an innovative surgery in 1983 to rebuild the heart of an infant with HLHS soon after birth.

Photo of Doug Smieja in 2024

The first Norwood surgery at Children’s Minnesota

Shortly after Doug was born in April 1985, he was transferred from a hospital near the family’s home in western Wisconsin to Children’s Minnesota. When parents Kathy and Gary arrived, they met with Dr. Singh who asked if Dr. Helseth could try the new Norwood surgery. Doug’s parents understood the surgery was risky, but he otherwise had no chance to live.

Photo of baby Doug Smieja after surgery
Doug post-Norwood procedure.

“It wasn’t really much of a decision,” said Kathy, Doug’s mom. “We knew we were going to lose him [if we did nothing], so it was basically our only hope. We never questioned it.”

This was the first time the Norwood surgery was performed at Children’s Minnesota and in the Upper Midwest. Children’s Minnesota was one of only a small group of pediatric hospitals in the U.S. that had begun to pioneer the three-stage surgical treatment for HLHS in 1985. Doug’s Norwood surgery was successful.

“Doug had wonderful care,” remembers Kathy. “The team was so helpful; the doctors and nurses were great. It was kind of like our own little family in the hospital. You’re in a whole world of your own [at Children’s Minnesota].”

After the surgery Doug remained in the hospital and had some complications including cardiac arrest. The Smieja family finally got to bring their baby home in early June. Then, still under Dr. Singh’s care, Doug had the other two HLHS surgeries – the Glenn, at 18 months old, and the Fontan, at 3 years old.

The result: Great quality of life

Once he recovered from his surgeries, the rest of Doug’s childhood was relatively normal with school, activities and regular heart check-ups with Dr. Singh. He hasn’t had any other heart surgeries. Today, Doug is a healthy, 39-year-old living in Independence, WI, who likes to travel and spend time with his family.

Doug continues to see Dr. Christopher Carter at the Midwest Adult Congenital Cardiac Center (MACC), one of the multiple specialty services provided by the Children’s Minnesota Cardiovascular Program, the largest program of its kind in the region.

“I feel great! I rarely get sick. I guess I tend to get colds but that’s about it,” said Doug. “It’s pretty amazing to hear my story and think about where it all started. I’m really lucky.”

Photo of Kathy and Gary Smieja with baby Doug before he went home.
Kathy and Gary Smieja with baby Doug before he went home.

A legacy that continues to grow

Nearly 40 years have passed since Drs. Singh and Helseth helped pioneer the HLHS surgery at Children’s Minnesota and the Children’s Heart Clinic. The success of the procedure opened a new field to help the babies born with HLHS. Only two other health systems had attempted the surgical procedure at that time.

Today, more than 400 heart surgeries are performed annually at Children’s Minnesota, including the HLHS three surgery series.

“The surgical and medical advancements made since the pioneering work of Drs. Singh and Helseth allows us to offer children with heart conditions a significantly improved quality of life and a future that their families once might have only dreamed of,” said Dr. Carter.

A century of caring for kids

Children’s Minnesota has been here for 100 years. And it’s all because of you: the people who bring your kids here, who work here, who refer patients for specialty treatment, who support our families with donations and who rally around them in the community. Join us in celebrating a century of care — and a bright, healthy future for Minnesota kids.